Slow Steam to Ocean Cargo Recovery for Some Trade Lanes
There is little to suggest that the Asia-to-North Europe trade will return to good health this year, despite the fact that headhaul volumes in December 2015 managed to scrape into positive growth territory for only the second time during the year.
December’s lift of 905,000 TEU set a new record in the trade for the last calendar month of the year and represented a jump of almost 200,000 TEU over what was carried in November, according to a report from Drewry Maritime Research.
Westbound volumes in the fourth quarter still fell year-on-year by 2.2 percent resulting in an overall cargo decline during 2015 of 3.5 percent, the worst annual result the trade has witnessed in the last 25 years, other than in 2009. In the last eight years the trade out of the Far East has barely grown by more than 6.5 percent.
Fourth quarter demand data does, indicate, however, that the worst may be over for the current malaise in Europe. German imports for 2015 registered a 2.8-percent decline compared to 2014 volumes, but, in the final three months of the year, growth–however miniscule at 0.3 percent– reasserted itself.
The headhaul trade saw some 350,000 TEU disappear from the market in 2015 of which almost half was accounted for by the downturn in Russia where volumes across the year slumped by 25 percent. Import totals for the final quarter reveal that the negative impact of sanctions and low oil prices is dissipating with boxes arriving in Russia down by only 11.5 percent compared to the same period in 2014.
UK imports grew by 2.3 percent in 2015 with fourth quarter flows rising 2.9 percent. French imports ended the year up almost one percent, although the final three months saw volumes retreat by 4.1 percent. Nine of the 23 countries served by the North European gate ports returned some degree of growth. But only four of those nine countries were able to post demand growth in the final three months: UK, Poland, Spain, and Portugal.
The carriers fine-tuned capacity provision in December to almost perfection by achieving 100-percent utilization by cancelling sailings, with six percent of normal supply being stripped out of the system.
Despite the average size of vessels serving the route growing by 19 percent from the fourth quarter of 2015 over the same quarter the year before, slot supply has fallen compared to a year earlier in each month between October and February.
In 2015, void sailings removed 910,000 TEU from headhaul supply, equivalent to almost eight percent of gross capacity. That equated to the extraction of some 70 sailings during the course of the year, although the actual number of omitted voyages was higher as the blanked sailings invariably concentrated on loops with smaller vessel deployment.
However, “the strategy of void sailings seems to be effective only when cargo flows are relatively buoyant,” said the Drewry report. “In slack periods, the scheme fails to have any bite.”
The result of extreme volatility of westbound spot rates. By mid-January 2015 they had risen to $1,850 per 40-foot container but by the first week in March they had fallen back to $450, which is where they rested in the early part of December. Rates are like to rise in the coming weeks, Drewry predicted.
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